A few of you expressed interest in my "a student called me an asshole" story from last week, but I'll be honest, I wasn't actually going to tell the story. I was really taken aback when it happened, but after that, well, it had fallen off the radar as something I was interested in bothering to write about. But then, it came to mind again yesterday, and then I read this post over at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess, and it occurred to me that a post about forms of address (obviously loosely conceived) and respect might be worth doing on this snowy, snowy Friday.
First off, let me just note for the record that this will not be a rant about "my" students. "My" students, i.e., ones who actually enroll in my classes and stay enrolled in them, students who get to know me and who are on board with learning from me, and even those students who don't know me personally but who know me through their friends who have taken classes with me, now that I'm 5+ years into this job, address me with respect, and if I correct them when they call me the wrong thing, they take the not so subtle hint that they should call me what I prefer. (By "not so subtle hint" I mean that I tell them, "actually, you should call me Dr. Crazy" - so really it's a direct correction and not a hint and so it's not like I'm expecting them to "just know" what to call me. I should also note that even if I don't correct them, my name as I expect to be addressed is listed on my syllabus. I'm not keeping it a secret what I prefer to be called.) Moreover, this actually won't be a rant about students in general. The reason the "asshole" thing caught me so off guard is that the majority of students that I encounter at my university are a respectful bunch.
I should also note for the record that my university - though a couple of departments do buck this trend - tends to favor formal modes of address for those who teach. Non-terminal-degreed folks (whether part-time, full-time, or t-t) are called Mr. or Ms., terminal-degreed folks are called Professor or Dr. The culture of the university is not one of casual address, so expecting to be addressed formally is not the exception - it's the rule. (Aside: I've actually been thinking a lot about this lately now that we have an MA program in our department, as I don't think that graduate students should call me Dr. Crazy but rather should just call me Firstname, but so far this doesn't seem to be the assumption of all professors. Huh. It must have something to do about the level of formality that different profs experienced in their respective grad programs that they attended, or maybe just habit from having been addressed formally by undergrads all these years?) But so anyway, when my colleagues refer to me in the third person to students, they call me Dr. Crazy, and I call my colleagues Dr. Colleague when in conversation with students. In other words, "what to call professors" isn't really all that confusing at my institution. Indeed, it's pretty clear, both in terms of convention and in terms of students being directly told.
So. I have two anecdotes to relate to you - the first, in which a student deemed it appropriate to say I was being an "asshole"; the second, in which an adjunct called me "honey."
The Setting: The elevator in my building.
The Scenario: I had gone downstairs to purchase a pathetic sandwich for my lunch because I had not had the wherewithal to pack a lunch that day. I had little time before I taught, and I was returning to my office to scarf down said pathetic sandwich before teaching. I was not wearing a coat to hide my professional attire (for indeed, I actually was dressed like a professor that day, as opposed to wearing jeans or something). So after purchasing my sandwich, I got on the elevator to go up to the top floor, where my office is located. As the elevator hit the floor before mine, a bunch of students were waiting to get the elevator down. Note: these were able-bodied students who could have walked five feet and taken the stairs down. However, it is not uncommon for students to decide that this is too great an expense of energy, and they will choose instead to get on the elevator going up, go up the one floor, and then take the elevator back down. This is irritating, but whatever. So I'm in the elevator with two other people who are going to get off on the top floor, when approximately 600 people who really want to go down pile into the elevator. We reach the top floor. The doors open. None of the people who are going up to go down move.
Dr. Crazy (loudly, with irritation plain in her voice): Excuse me!
Pause, and then finally like three students move out of the way, while I, a colleague from another department, and a student, attempt to elbow our ways out of the elevator.
Dr. Crazy (annoyed): For the record, if you're going to go up to go down and there are other people in the elevator, it's common courtesy to move out of the way when you reach the top floor when the elevator door opens.
Note: I was still behind most of the students when I said this, so all they likely registered was that a female voice was chiding them for rude behavior.
Punk-ass Male Student (as I exited the elevator): "God, you don't have to be an asshole about it."
I just kept walking, but I did register that student's face, and I sincerely hope that someday he enrolls in a class with me.
Commentary: Now, first, let me acknowledge that I wasn't particularly patient in this episode, and in part this has to do with the fact that this isn't the first time I've experienced this problem, and on at least one occasion the students who piled in to go up to go down didn't bother to move and so I ended up having to ride down and then ride up again. So my level of patience has been tried previously, which they could not know. I'll also acknowledge that all the student registered was a female voice when first I spoke, and then, as I exited, that I wasn't gray-haired and authoritative looking. (It was so crowded that the student may not have registered my professorial dress.) So I suspect, though of course I have no way of knowing for certain, that the student wasn't responding to me as a "professor" but rather as an uppity female who had the audacity to stand up for herself and for her need to exit the elevator. But I suppose this was why I found the interchange so shocking: I'm used to being treated, by my students and by my colleagues, with a professional level of respect. My assertion of authority in the moment was colored by the fact that I was thinking of myself as a professor and not as an uppity female. The student's response was one that was seeing me as equal to or lesser than himself, as opposed to a person who has power (however limited) in the institutional hierarchy. I didn't respond to the asshole comment because I needed to eat my lunch, and I wasn't going to fight with a student about being disrespectful when I had things to do. In thinking about this episode later, I did note that it was interesting that the student said I was being an "asshole" rather than being a "bitch" or a "cunt" or some other gendered epithet, and I actually think that this has to do with the fact that the student was responding to me not as a Lady Professor. Indeed, typically students who would respond to me as a Lady Professor would call me "bitch," which strangely I think is a mark of my authority. In this case, I think the student thought I was being rude by calling out rude behavior, for being impatient, whatever. And maybe I was (except I totally don't think I was, if I'm honest).
So anyway, that is the story on that one. I found it irritating, but then I got over it. Ultimately, whatever. But so then yesterday, I had another interesting interchange that brought this earlier one back to mind.
The Setting: The department copy room.
The Scenario: I'm in there to make copies for my class, to staple some things, etc. An adjunct who is probably in his 60s is also in there, while I'm stapling the things I've copied, is attempting to copy some things for his class. Apparently, although xeroxing technology has been part of our world for the past 20 years, he still has not mastered it. Now, I'll note that I didn't look particularly professorial yesterday, as our world is a tundra and so I was wearing my warmest sweater, jeans, and boots. Does this make a difference in this setting? Could the adjunct have thought that I'm a student worker or something? I doubt it, as I'd been chatting with another tenured colleague about how I was making copies for my theory class immediately preceding what follows, and the adjunct was part of that conversation.
Adjunct (supersiliously): Honey, do you think you could help me with this [making my copies]?
Commentary: I gave him a brusque response that was helpful, but no, I did not make his copies for him, which is what I think he expected me to do. And yes, I was totally pissed off that the guy called me "honey" and also that he thought it was my job to help him with making freaking copies. (This is one of my axes that I cannot stop grinding, the fact that older male colleagues seem to think that by virtue of my youthful vagina I am an office worker, who can fix jams in the printers and copiers, who can show them how to use the machines, and who has nothing better to do with her time than to assist them in their clerical needs. I had enough of that when I was a temp, thank you very much.) With all of that being said, no, I didn't call him out on calling me "honey." I didn't have the time or the energy. And, dude, it's my job to educate my students, and not every yahoo who doesn't understand appropriate modes of address. (And, honestly, even if I was a student worker I would find the "honey" inappropriate - a simple "excuse me" with no address at all would have been fine, and even "miss" or "ma'am" since the guy doesn't know my name would have been respectful. "Honey" just has no place in the workplace.) So maybe I've got no leg to stand on because I didn't correct the guy, but I'm a girl who picks her battles, and that just wasn't a battle I was interested in having 10 minutes before class.
So, what links these two anecdotes? And what do these two seemingly isolated incidents have to do with proper modes of address for female faculty, or the names with which people in general choose to address women? What does this have to do with the identities that women are expected to inhabit in our culture generally? And what does any of this have to do with respect?
For me, what links these two tales is the fact that in both cases, I had an implicit expectation that I would be treated with a certain amount of respect based on my professional role, and yet the men with whom I interacted did not recognize me as inhabiting that professional role. Now, in both cases, one might argue that they were unaware of my professional role because of the circumstances: they didn't know me, my appearance and the context didn't necessarily manifest the professional role that I inhabit. But I think that this is in fact the salient point here: the default for how women are perceived (and by extension addressed) is not a position of authority or a position that commands respect, but rather it is a position in which one lacks authority and has to earn respect. Unless I display my professional role clearly - I'm wearing my professor costume, I'm standing in front of the class, I'm in my office - a good many people (especially men, though women, too) will "read" me as either a student or as an office worker. (Actually, even when I'm in my office, with its Dr. Crazy nameplate on the door, people sometimes assume I'm an office worker or student.)
Now some might say that my appearance is the main issue here, that because I don't "look my age" or "look like a professor" (whatever those things mean) that I don't get the same kind of respect from strangers. But I just don't buy that. I think it's no mistake that the images of "professor" that come up in google are without fail images of men (and not all old men either - see Dr. Isis's post to which I linked above), just as it's no mistake that the images that come up for "radical feminist" show women who are "white, middle-class or professional, loudmouthed, morbidly obese, middle-aged, and/or ridiculous."
I should also note that these are just two recent incidents: they are not the only incidents of this kind that I could recount. In the past 5 years, I've been addressed, at work, as sweetheart, babe, repeatedly as "Mrs." Crazy even after I explained that I should be called "Dr." Crazy, by my first name when I hadn't invited a person to call me by my first name and after repeated corrections about appropriate ways to address me. I've been called a bitch, a shrew, a cunt (though on evaluations, not to my face).
What I'm describing here is not stuff that happens to me every day with "my" students. "My" students typically are fantastic, they treat me with respect, if they accidentally screw up on what to call me, that's totally not a big deal, and I correct them, they take note of it, and we move on from there. I am not, ultimately, some power-hungry fishwife with a no tolerance policy for people who make mistakes, nor am I all about pretentiously lording my educational or professional status over others. What I'm describing is something that lies quietly beneath the surface except for when I'm blindsided by it. I go along thinking that I hold a position that commands respect - because of my education, because of my professional position, because of the hard work that I do - only to be reminded every now and again, when somebody names me in a certain way, that my default position is one that commands no respect at all.
6 years ago